Pompeo Braces for Brutal Confirmation Fight

With a tight vote looming, lawmakers hope to extract the outgoing CIA chief’s pledge to restore a damaged State Department.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Dan De Luce
CIA Director Mike Pompeo testifiesduring a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, on Feb. 13, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
CIA Director Mike Pompeo testifiesduring a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, on Feb. 13, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump is acting as if Mike Pompeo’s confirmation as secretary of state is a foregone conclusion, tasking him with organizing a highly anticipated meeting with North Korea.

But first, Pompeo faces a confirmation vote in the Senate, where the outgoing CIA director could see a potentially unprecedented, if symbolic, defeat in the Senate foreign relations committee, and then a nail-biter vote on the Senate floor.

Republicans are banking on eking out a win on Pompeo’s confirmation, but Democrats on the committee are still gearing up for a fight. “It’s definitely not a done deal,” says one Democratic senate aide. “His chances in the committee are not looking good.” (An obscure rule will allow Pompeo’s nomination to move out of committee for a Senate-wide vote, congressional staffers say, even if the committee doesn’t vote to approve his nomination.)

In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republicans hold a slim one-seat majority. But in March, libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) vowed to do everything he could to block Pompeo’s nomination over his defense of enhanced interrogation techniques, or torture, and his support for the Iraq War.

If all committee Democrats and Paul vote against Pompeo, it will be the first time in modern history a secretary of state nominee moves to a Senate-wide vote without the approval of the foreign relations committee.

Pompeo’s nomination hearing before the Senate foreign relations committee hasn’t been formally scheduled, but several Senate aides say they expect it to take place as soon as April 11.

A bruising confirmation battle could mar his tenure as secretary of state right out of the gate. That would only add another layer of upheaval to Trump’s dramatic reshuffle of his foreign-policy team, including the replacement of former national security advisor H.R. McMaster with uber-hawk John Bolton on April 9. Pompeo’s travails also underscore how partisan gridlock has seeped into foreign policy, where even in the recent past consensus across the aisle on Capitol Hill was commonplace.

As a result, the White House will be lobbying hard to peel away a few Democrats. But left-leaning activists are also pressing hard for Democrats to oppose Pompeo’s nomination, portraying it as a crucial test of unity in an increasingly divided party.

Congressional aides say the Democrats are preparing to grill Pompeo on some of Trump’s most controversial foreign-policy decisions, including the future of the Iran nuclear deal, the planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, deteriorating U.S. relations with Russia, and the weakening of the State Department.

Two Democrats on the committee, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, both backed Pompeo’s confirmation last year as CIA director. But they’ve already raised the possibility of voting against his nomination this time for the top diplomatic job. Kaine said he had “major concerns” about Pompeo’s attitude toward diplomacy.

Daniel Vajdich, a Republican foreign-policy expert and former Senate aide, says the Democrats on the committee wouldn’t be putting up such a strong fight against Pompeo if the numbers weren’t aligned in their favor, tipped by Rand Paul. “Most Democrats realize he will ultimately [be confirmed], but they’re going to extract some flesh in the process,” he says.

Even on the Senate floor, with partisan lines drawn in a 51-49 Republican majority — once former Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) replacement takes office April 9 — the vote will be tight, rattling the nerves of some Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“It’s striking, because secretaries of state have historically tended to have strong bipartisan support,” says Jordan Tama, associate professor of international relations at American University and a research fellow at the school’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

“It’s hard to even think of another example where a secretary of state nomination has been in jeopardy, let alone not be approved by the Senate foreign relations committee,” he says.

Apart from policy issues, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are expected to grill Pompeo on whether he will fight to restore funding to the State Department and abandon his predecessor’s controversial restructuring of the foreign service, which sparked a plunge in morale.

A group of 200 former ambassadors and senior diplomats wrote an open letter dated March 21 to the Senate foreign relations committee leadership, pleading with them to “focus public attention on the urgent need to restore the power and influence of American diplomacy.” The non-partisan advocacy group Foreign Policy for America organized the letter.

“This is an important opportunity for Congress to say, ‘We care about our diplomatic capability and we’re not going to agree to this administration dismantling the Department of State,’” says Nancy McEldowney, a former career ambassador who retired in 2017 after 30 years and who signed the letter.

Some former diplomats hope Pompeo’s razor-thin margin in the Senate gives lawmakers leverage to squeeze out assurances from Pompeo that he won’t cut the State Department’s budget or personnel further.

“This isn’t the pinstriped suits concerned about protecting their equities,” says McEldowney. “This is about national security.”

In his closed-door meetings with senators in the runup to his hearing, Pompeo has touted his excellent rapport with the president, aides say, which would stand in sharp contrast to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Republicans and even some Democrats see that as an advantage, and an argument for confirming Pompeo: He could leverage those ties to win more resources and influence for a beleaguered diplomatic corps.

“The last thing Democrats want to see is a period of even more uncertainty because the nomination is held up,” says Jamie Fly, a former advisor to Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican.

“At the end of the day, they’re going to want a secretary of state who is at least connected to the White House and who will push more forcefully for the department in the administration,” says Fly, now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

But top Republicans want to make sure that Pompeo isn’t too close to the president and can speak his mind. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and chairman of the foreign relations committee, has suggested lawmakers will ask Pompeo if he will provide candid advice to Trump — even including perspectives the president does not want to hear.

“It’s my sense that Pompeo is much more aligned with the president,” Corker told CBS’s Face the Nation last month. “And so I think one of the questions he’ll get … during the hearing process, is just ensuring that he’s going to be giving honest assessments and that full range of options to the president as decisions are being made.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer